Deep-rooted caste biases and the brazen disregard by civic authorities of court judgments are the main reason for the frequent deaths of sewerage workers across the country

Earlier this month, a group of men set forth to unblock a drain sewer in the basement of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in Delhi. Two of the men, Ashok and Chhotu, entered the sewer but did not return. The other two, Rajeshwar and Satish, went in to look for their colleagues. Three of the four men, assaulted by the poisonous rush of gases, lost their lives on the spot. Chhotu survived and was pulled out. Ashok, Rajeshwar and Satish became a statistic alongside other sewage workers like Robert and Shekhar who also died of asphyxiation while unblocking a sewage tank in a private hotel in Chennai in April this year.

The resident electrician at IGNCA had roped in housekeeping staff to unblock the sewer on a Sunday afternoon on the cheap. The four men, all Dalits, were not provided with safety gear. They entered the sewer with only a handkerchief for protection. They were hit by the foul-smelling methane gas and delayed in their escape by the thick muck that lines the sewer. That three out of the four were employees of the IGNCA is a fact that officials-in-charge now unashamedly deny.

The officials in the administrative and engineering departments at IGNCA, as well as the contractor, all of whom sanctioned the work, are in stubborn denial of their failure to comply with safety requirements.

No safety gear

The deaths of the three men are yet another reminder of the frightening frequency with which lives have been similarly extinguished across sewers in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu in recent years.

Are sewage workers asked to enter drains and sewers only as a last resort? Are suction machines deployed at all or do they fail each time? Why were workers not given safety gear (oxygen mask, goggles, gumboots, helmet)? Were their families awarded adequate compensation? These questions remain unanswered as the actions of the offenders across the country stand in violation of the July 2011 judgment of the Supreme Court, which noted that sewage workers, by being forced to enter drains without safety equipment, have been deprived of their fundamental rights to equality, life and liberty. It criticised governments for their insensitivity towards the plight of sewage workers and directed civic bodies to ensure the safety and security of workers, in addition to paying higher compensation to the families of the deceased.

Sewerage workers, traditionally Valmiki Dalits, employed by civic bodies such as the Water Board, Public Works Department (PWD), Municipal Corporations, have, for generations, relentlessly toiled, continually risking their health and life to ensure upkeep of the sewerage system. But save for hurt, exploitation and untouchability, they have received little in return. Despite proactive orders of the Gujarat High Court (2006) and Madras High Court (2008), the implementation of the directives remains unrealised, in the wake of frequent deaths.

Health hazards

The task of inspecting, repairing, unblocking and maintaining sewers exposes workers to the sordid, sewage gunk that is generated in our homes, factories, hotels, hospitals and workplaces each day — an odorous mix of human excrement, food waste, plastic, used sanitary materials, and industrial effluents. This rotting refuse ferments to produce noxious gases, commonly methane, hydrogen sulphide and nitrogen oxide, which routinely threaten the workers’ lives besides causing respiratory, gastric, spinal and skin diseases.

To guard themselves against exposure to these gases, most workers express a strong preference for protective gear such as full body suits. However, maintaining that the “unlettered” workers fail to appreciate such technology, most Water Board officials approach the issue of workers’ safety with unabashed negligence. Some alcohol, the workers say, is the first buffer against this gaseous attack, for without it, it is unthinkable to survive the nauseating odour. Oftenm what passes off as safety equipment is an oxygen cylinder, the weight of which, not cushioned by a body suit, is too burdensome and inconvenient for workers to work with.

“It is not our death that we fear but the fate of our families after our death.” This is what Delhi’s Jal Board branch workers say — every one of them. This is the workers’ deepest insecurity, compounded by the complete absence or wretched provisioning of social security support.

Rehabilitation Bill

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, that declared manual scavenging unconstitutional did not address these insecurities as it failed to bring sewage workers within its ambit. In a welcome departure, the United Progressive Alliance’s Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012 recognises the group of persons traditionally forced to clean septic tanks, sewers and open drains, as “manual scavengers.” It also promises an economic “rehabilitation package” for workers, while failing to specify the safety gear that should be provided. It is silent too on worker health and safety regulations that should be made binding.

There is a possibility that the recognition of sewage workers as “manual scavengers” may translate into mere lip service, insofar as it collates a practice (of cleaning dry toilets and railway tracks) that can be wholly eradicated, with a hazardous occupation (of cleaning sewers and septic tanks), where investment in superior technology can prevent the worker from entering the sewer drain or manhole in the first place. Eventually, the only way forward is to attack our caste biases, implement the law with rigour and push for a strong political commitment to remedy a historical wrong.

The 1993 Act has rarely been invoked and not a single offender has been prosecuted till date. Not pinning responsibility on erring authorities (be it the government-run IGNCA or a private hotel in Chennai) legitimises the prejudicial treatment that is meted out to Dalit individuals whose labour we exploit.

The abrupt end to the lives of sewage workers in India is often not death by accident but a consequence of brazen indifference, rooted in caste inequalities and carelessly practised by civic authorities and private and public institutions at large.

It is a yearly drill — civic authorities across cities dismally fail the “monsoon test” and then rely on their Dalit workforce for its back-breaking, cheap labour to offset the civic shame. It reflects an entrenched system of caste-exploitation, the gains of which are reaped not just by a multitude of civic bodies but also by our resident welfare associations, schools, universities, hotels and hospitals, art and entertainment complexes and private offices. Our own insensitivity implicates us in the ongoing indignities and injustices Dalit workers experience.

(Agrima Bhasin is at the Centre for Equity Studies, a New-Delhi based policy think-tank.)

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